The Importance of Company Culture in Responding to Crisis

How COVID-19 Affects Health and Safety

This article is part of a series addressing COVID-19. At IsoMetrix, we are committed to bringing you useful and practical information as you navigate through an unprecedented crisis. You can find our full library of COVID-19 resources here.

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To meet the multitude of challenges presented by the once-in-a-century COVID-19 pandemic businesses have to to adapt as quickly as possible to the changes it has brought. This crisis management should not be at the expense of your organization’s Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) principles and practices.

We spoke to IsoMetrix partner Sergio Seanez Castellanos, Partner and Managing Director of Foundamentality, about the role of corporate culture and safety in managing a crisis. Here’s what he had to say:

Real resilience

Foundamentality have been hard at work in the last few weeks developing a specialized resilience package to assist clients in maintaining their energy and focus as the world hesitates in the wake of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our resilience package is designed to help businesses assess their awareness of the situation so that they can act and move the business to the right place,” explains Sergio.

He has emphasised the importance of company culture in the face of constant EHS change. Sergio has spoken of a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous (VUCA) world for quite some time and He maintains that the COVID-19 pandemic is yet another in a long line of crises.

With this in mind, businesses need to build real resilience. “You cannot afford to miss safety, quality, environmental health at this time. It is more important now than ever,” Sergio says.

Innovate

Businesses must navigate the challenge of finding and maintaining a balance between responding to crises and keeping employees energized and connected.

“Now is the time to innovate your business and innovate your EHS processes. COVID-19 impacts all aspects of your business, not just health, it also impacts quality, environment and so on. Do not lose sight of those while you try to manage the immediate crisis. Otherwise, you risk undoing everything you have invested in building a strong corporate culture that has safety at its core.”

Reinforce your beliefs

A crisis is a time to reinforce beliefs. Go back to what is important to - your business. Adversity reveals individual character as much as it shows the true face of companies, Sergio says.

Businesses that can weather a storm by correctly prioritizing their efforts will be far better off in the long run.

If your attention is only focused on a developing crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, you run the risk of losing sight of other (and arguably equally important) issues.

Sergio explains that “a crisis creates a fearful environment where employees may not report on small incidents. They hide them and this can cause even bigger problems.” Emphasise that staying on the ball with the things you usually do, and the systems you have already built, is just as critical as flexibility and being able to adapt to the crisis.

COVID-19 has seen stock markets crash and businesses close their doors. Employees and managers need to do what they can to maintain the production rate.

Sometimes a crisis like the pandemic can lead to to employees taking more risks than they usually would. “Everyone wants to maintain jobs, of course they do! So people take more risks and they create an environment where risk is allowed. This is typical behavior in a crisis, it is not unique to COVID-19,” he says.

When employees start taking more risks and not reporting on incidents, problems are created, with short- and long-term consequences, he says.

“People are inherently social, and organizational culture is built on shared beliefs within the group. When people start ignoring one important thing for another, that shared belief structure shifts,” he says.

This creates long-term problems. Safety, quality and health start to feel unimportant, and employees believe that they can take risks to get results. Don’t let this happen, he warns.

“If employees stop reporting on small incidents now, in the long-run safety is compromised. This may result in a fatality, and because incidents have not been reported as they should be, you will not understand why.”

“It is very hard to hide a fatality or big incident, it is very easy to hide a small incident, though. People are fearful about losing their jobs, and perhaps do not want to be viewed as the stupid person during the crisis and they want to save the world. You start creating a hero culture. You are not a hero when you ignore safety protocol to get a job done.” He maintains that the real heroes are everyone who is doing the right things, staying at home when they can, maintaining safety.

Not only that, sacrificing safety in a misguided attempt to save the business is a temporary fix. Many businesses have already invested heavily in creating good corporate cultures that integrate safety. Skip the safety now and you risk undoing the good work that you have done. That could mean you have to spend years reinvesting in and rebuilding this culture. “You can undo the last five, maybe even ten years of building your company culture in three months.”

Three competencies companies must have to weather a crisis

The world has faced crisis after crisis in the last few years. “COVID-19 is just another one, and there will be a crisis after this. We live in a very turbulent world. We have some form of crisis every day, war, socio-political issues, climate change,” says Sergio. What then, do organizations need to build resilience to volatility? Sergio recommends building these three competencies that companiesto not only survive, but to thrive:

Velocity: A business that values its employees and implements people-centric leadership strategies will cut through the noise, build trust and increase awareness. In doing so, they will be able to react to challenges with speed and accuracy.

Agility: This refers to the capacity to see a challenge and move to deal with it at the moment it happens. Agility depends on an organization’s leadership style and management system, and these together shape company culture and resilience. An organization is weighed down by systemic inefficiency,slowing its reaction to challenges in a counterproductive manner.

Resilience: An organization is first and foremost made up of people. The ability of a group of people to deal with challenges relies on collaboration and building strong relationships internally and externally, even when there is no crisis to confront. By sharing information, helping others and having a clearly defined purpose, organizations are made more resilient.

“You need these to navigate a turbulent world,” says Sergio. “As a leader, you must assess where the fear and frustration is coming from so that you can address these directly with clear communication.”

Conclusion

Resilience requires a high level of empathy and strong relationship building. Any crisis highlights the importance of people-centric management.

“If you focus on people you will get results. This is a tipping point. Employees are knowledgeable and it would be a mistake not to treat them as such,” says Sergio. “We are not factory workers anymore, and offices built on factory-like models, no longer serve the needs of the organization.”

This is not a new idea, but now is the time to shine a spotlight on what matters, rethink how we operate and work together to come out the other side stronger.

Sergio

About Sergio Seanez Castellanos

Partner and Managing Director of Foundamentality, Sergio has more than 15 years’ experience in culture transformation. He worked with global clients in 30 different countries across Asia, Europe, and the US for over a decade at a global safety consulting company before launching Foundamentality, a pioneering management consultancy.

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